Being one-of-one, the number one, the only one has emerged as Beyoncé’s most prominent creative ethos. This year, she became the most decorated artist in Grammys history and completed the most ambitious tour of her career, bringing her celebration of Black and queer culture on her Renaissance album to stadiums across the world. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift reached an idiosyncratic tier of cultural prominence in her own right, breaking chart records and delivering an extravaganza of her own on the career-spanning stadium run, the Eras tour. Both artists have been building toward these legacy-defining moments for decades. Over that course of time, their narratives have rarely ever overlapped.
But this year, they’ve consistently been sized up against one another based on their tours and the accompanying concert films they both released in theaters this fall. “There were so many stadium tours this summer, but the only ones that were compared were me and Beyoncé,” Swift recently told Time, which named her Person of the Year for 2023. The format of these releases has provided spectators with a numerical basis for easy comparison: stadium sizes, tickets sold, and box-office statistics. “Clearly it’s very lucrative for the media and stan culture to pit two women against each other,” Swift continued, “even when those two artists in question refuse to participate in that discussion.” And yet, the comparisons have persisted.
It’s lucrative only in the sense that it allows for the existence of an unproductive and cyclical conversation that ignores an essential truth: the intangible value of the space that music creates for people cannot be numerically quantified — and individual moments cannot be compared to holistic legacies. Over the last 26 years, countless moments have added up to allow Beyoncé to redefine what it means to be an incomparable cultural icon in the digital age. And over the last 17 years, an almost completely different set of moments combined to position Swift as the pop titan we know her as today. A Venn diagram comparing these two figures, and the circumstances that informed their arrival at these heights, would have little more in the center than their resulting capitalistic achievements.
And while their music may share similar functions in creating spaces of escapism and understanding for their audiences, the two catalogs represent vastly different displays of their artistry. Swift’s skill set as a songwriter is her most championed gift. Her navigation of girlhood and dissection of pivotal interpersonal relationships often spark visceral emotional reactions from listeners. Meanwhile, Beyoncé is a visual and vocal-forward performer. She creates new life from samples and interpolations, intricately stacks vocal harmonies, delivers chilling vocal runs, and builds imagery around her music rooted in the culture that informed it. Beyoncé primarily sculpts where Swift paints. These two artists are no closer in conversation as peers than Michelangelo and Van Gogh.
However, that overlapping space does contain one particularly defining instance: Kanye West’s infamous interruption at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, in which he stormed the stage to declare that Beyoncé deserved the Best Female Video award over Swift. “I remember being 17 years old, up for my first MTV Award with Destiny’s Child, and it was one of the most exciting moments in my life,” Beyoncé said on stage later that night. “So, I’d like for Taylor to come out and have her moment.” It was Swift’s first experience publicly reclaiming, or at least reshaping, her narrative after an attempted public takedown. She’s mastered that art (with plenty of practice, much of which stemmed from that moment) in the years since. “I thought it was so wonderful and gracious of her to do what she’s always done,” Swift told reporters that night. But the moment came as no real surprise to those who know Beyoncé — she is famously endlessly gracious, especially in awards environments.
In 2010, both Beyoncé and Swift were nominated for Album of the Year for the first time at the Grammy Awards for I Am… Sasha Fierce and Fearless, respectively. The then-country star took home the award, but Beyoncé became the first female artist in the show’s history to collect six awards in a single night. It remains the only instance in which the two stars have competed against one another for that top honor. In fact, 10 years passed before they were even listed as nominees in any of the same categories again. As the Recording Academy’s snubbing of Beyoncé across the top categories became more glaring over the years, Swift couldn’t possibly be part of the conversation because their consistently alternating album cycles have left little room for overlap and competition.
A particularly revealing loss came just this year, when Harry Styles was awarded Album of the Year over Renaissance on the same night when Beyoncé became the most awarded artist in the show’s history with 32 total career wins — but with only one from a Big Four category and nearly two dozen from the R&B, rap, and urban contemporary categories. Beyoncé had once again made history while a white artist received the highest honor of music’s “biggest night.” It could have been argued that there was no need to nitpick about the specifics and that the record alone should have been enough. But it was clear why it wasn’t. As Jay-Z stated in an interview with Tidal a few days before the 2023 ceremony: “We grew up wanting to be on the Grammys, and it was our goal. We just want them to get it right.”
For three years after Adele’s 25 was awarded Album of the Year over Lemonade at the 2017 Grammy Awards, Beyoncé quietly skipped the annual ceremonies even when she was nominated. Other musicians, including Drake, Frank Ocean, and the Weeknd, have more vocally dismissed the show and criticized the Recording Academy for its undervaluing and attempted humbling of Black artists. “Success looks different to me now,” Beyoncé told Elle in 2020. “My true win is creating art and a legacy that will live far beyond me.”
Swift’s relationship with the Recording Academy is quite different. She has a total of a dozen Grammy Award wins, with one-fourth being Album of the Year trophies. In her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, the singer learned that Reputation — her 2017 album born from what she recently called a “career death” — wasn’t nominated in the coveted category. In that moment, Swift ultimately chalked the lack of recognition up to needing to make a better record. To be able to express disappointment and almost immediately pinpoint a potential solution within reach — especially when she had sparred with Nicki Minaj in 2015 for voicing similar dissatisfaction with a voting body — is a luxury of its own. For artists like Beyoncé, Blackness can’t change without intense creative compromise. Either the institution has to change, or their expectations do.
“She’s such a great disrupter of music-industry norms,” Swift told Time about Beyoncé. “She taught every artist how to flip the table and challenge archaic business practices.” Now, this is where their similarities converge a bit more. For three years after its 2016 release, Lemonade was only available to stream on Tidal, the music service Beyoncé shares with Jay-Z. Swift also had a three-year period, which began in 2014, during which her complete catalog was removed from Spotify. “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for,” she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that year. In both cases, the only other alternative, really, was to buy the record itself either digitally or physically, which was even more lucrative for their pockets. And their live shows are the real cash cows.
In August, the New York Times reported estimates that the Eras tour “could generate some $4.6 billion in economic activity in North America alone, taking into account both stadium capacity and people’s reported spending plans on things like tickets, merchandise and travel,” while it was estimated that the Renaissance tour would reach $4.5 billion in spending. The Eras tour concert film, which captured a straight run-through of the three-hour-long show, opened to $92.8 million in North America. Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé, the latest documentary-concert entry in her legacy-shaping filmography, opened at $22 million. Swift and Beyoncé attended the premieres of each other’s films, which were both distributed internationally through AMC (the artists have both been criticized for screening in Israel while also being praised for not having performed there).
“What has existed since the dawn of time? A patriarchal society. What fuels a patriarchal society? Money, flow of revenue, the economy,” Swift added in Time. “So actually, if we’re going to look at this in the most cynical way possible, feminine ideas becoming lucrative means that more female art will get made. It’s extremely heartening.” It’s not so much a cynical viewpoint as it is the reality of how even art created with feminism in mind is ultimately shaped and packaged to bolster capitalistic value. During Beyoncé’s VMAs Video Vanguard Award performance in 2014, the word “feminist” flashed across the screen in bold letters as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech “We Should All Be Feminists” blared over the set. Adichie was critical of Beyoncé’s particular brand of feminism. That same year, Swift also declared herself to be a feminist. That was met with criticism, too.
Swift has arrived at her political positioning in the way many white women do, learning somewhat clumsily where the line is drawn between solidarity and self-preservation. Earlier this year, she was rumored to be dating the 1975 frontman Matty Healy, who had made recent racist comments about Ice Spice. In April, Healy issued a faux-apology to the Bronx rapper. The following month, she appeared on Swift’s now Grammy-nominated “Karma” remix. However brief, that moment was indicative of the reasons why Black fans have often had trouble finding space for themselves within her world, despite the accessibility of her music. Swift’s limited understanding of intersectional feminism and what it means to champion other women, even if it isn’t mutually beneficial, has often complicated her professional narrative.
And Beyoncé arrived at her own political positioning more through the mere act of existing as a Black woman. Her identity is completely inseparable from the ways in which her work is digested. On the self-praising celebration “Alien Superstar,” she introduces an essential visionary figure to her Renaissance: National Black Theatre Founder Barbara Ann Teer. “We dress a certain way, we walk a certain way, we talk a certain way, we paint a certain way, we make love a certain way,” she says in the sample pulled from “Black Theatre,” the speech she delivered on the 1973 Folkways album Black Drama. “All of these things we do in a different, unique, specific way that is personally ours.” Those 15 seconds are only a brief glimpse into the full 20-minute recording, during which Teer emphasizes the importance of allowing Black individuality to flourish in creative spaces without having to view that work through the lens of whiteness.
Even Swift’s interpretation of the motive behind the comparisons between herself and Beyoncé — driven largely by territorial fans online — speaks to their lack of shared experiences. It’s not just that the comparisons prevail “even when those two artists in question refuse to participate in that discussion,” but that participation on Beyoncé’s end would function entirely differently than it would on Swift’s. She’s allowed less grace and fewer public stumbles, while Swift is able to remain in a constant state of growth and learning. The standards they represent in the pop culture lexicon are as different as the standards they are held to socially. That doesn’t deem either, or the space it provides for their audience, any less valid than the other. It does, however, provide a largely incomparable context around both conversations.
Earlier in “Black Theatre,” Teer highlights a key element that informs Beyoncé’s creative ethos, the collective “need to be in an atmosphere that is free, that is open, that is striving for truth and not somebody else dictating to you how to do your thing — which you know how to do better than anybody else.” A few moments later, she makes an unvarnished declaration: “I want to determine my own destiny; I want to determine how I’m going to speak on the stage; I don’t want to be a mass personality; I don’t want to be a one-dimension.”